FOCUS: AFGHANISTAN
On the frontlines with US troops
Al Jazeera's Clayton Swisher reports on the daily challenges they face in the Afghan war.
Last Modified: 12 Jul 2009 13:59 GMT

Clayton Swisher spent 14 days with US troops as they took on the Taliban in north-east Afghanistan

Al Jazeera's Clayton Swisher spent two weeks embedded with the US military along the north-east Afghan border with Pakistan where the Taliban is still active.
 
In his four-part series, he documented the lives US soldiers lead and the logistical challenges they face on the frontlines in Afghanistan.

 
Combat Outpost Monti, nestled in the north-eastern Afghan city of Asmar, in Kunar Province, is the staging area for Charlie Company, 1-32 of the US Army's 10th Mountain Division. 
 
Tom Nicholson, the Al Jazeera cameraman, and I arrived there on a CH-47 Chinook Helicopter under cover of darkness, and for the next two weeks we would be embedded here to learn how the Afghan war was being fought through the eyes of US soldiers. 
 
We did not spend much time at COP Monti - both Tom and I volunteered to go on every mission "across the wire" and our reasoning was twofold. First, we wanted to spend as much time in the field trying to learn the American way of war in a campaign that has continued for nearly eight years. 
 
But second, and more importantly, we had to establish rapport, and fast. 
 
Facing daily threats

It is reasonable for any unit taking in embedded journalists to want to examine the motivations and tactical soundness of its guests, such as not exposing the troops to more harm than they already face, much less the prospect of public embarrassment given the constant presence of our cameras.
 
To that end, we arrived at the host unit with some baggage.

We were told about a print journalist whose embed was cancelled by the brigade commander for, among other things, complaining when soldiers would not carry his bags and goading young privates into the kind of idle banter that might make scandalous headlines but is the norm for any infantry unit (or college dorm room for that matter). 
 
From the very beginning, Tom and I wanted the soldiers to understand that our approach was genuinely different.

The only way to prove it was to head across the wire with them as much as possible, facing the same threats as they did, and returning with them at odd hours of the night. 
 
Getting out into Kunar province is tough. There is one paved main road, nicknamed "California" by the military, but it peters out into a rocky dirt path in the northern parts near Chapekoh, where the Taliban are more active.

It is a nauseating ride to get into the nooks and crannies of the Hindu Kush Mountains. 
 
But airlifting in by helicopter is also difficult - these flying gunships have become scarce due to the Iraq war and other priorities in the southern provinces. 

Walking in with body armour under the blazing summer sun is also not an option. That leaves the troops protected in armoured vehicles but exposed all at once. 
 
Historical defeats

Charlie Company 1-32 has been fighting in Kunar Province along the Pakistan border
Improvised explosive device attacks have been on the increase here, as the know-how and technology has migrated from the battlefield in Iraq to the mountainous terrains of Afghanistan. 
 
On that note, there was a sombre mood each day as we left the base on missions.

The blare of heavy metal music and the squawking of radios can bring a counterintuitive stillness.
 
I quietly watched the relics of imperial defeat littered everywhere; rusted British cannons from centuries past sit alongside burned-out Russian tanks. 
 
I could not help but wonder if the machines we ride in might some day join this outdoor museum. It surely crossed the mind of the machine gunner sitting exposed in the turret.

As they scan the terrain and down Red Bull drinks, one gets a sense that the gunners have come to accept that if the convoy gets hit, they'll be the first ones to go down.
 
Deploying on foot with Charlie Company was always an adventure. Depending on the mission, we would normally be gone no more than 12 hours at a time.
 
Dangers at dusk

The threat of attack was usually greatest at dusk; it is hard to identify a target with a glaring sun behind it, and the Taliban use this guerrilla tactic well as they fire at the Army in the valley down below from the key mountaintop terrain. 
 
On more than one occasion, we picked up "chatter" of an imminent ambush. We would listen to intercepted communications as Taliban commanders in the hills ordered the women and children to be evacuated to the safety of the Kunar River.

Five minutes would pass, and we would see an old man walking every woman, child, and elderly person away from their home, each of them refusing to look at the soldiers outside. 
 
Moments of intense anxiety would follow. The soldiers locked and loaded, co-ordinating with the Afghan National Army on what they would do in the event that an ambush began. Military technology would be brought to bear.

Helicopters would drop flares on suspected enemy fighting positions to try and encourage its inhabitants to go ahead and shoot. 
 
Infrared and thermal scopes would focus on people and objects many kilometres away - on a still night I could discern the ears of a rabbit at 2am as it walked by a farm over 4km away. 
 
Enemy is astute

Al Jazeera's cameraman Tom Nicholson documented the challenges US troops face

But the Taliban does not fall for such traps - it knows when the Army shows up en masse that it stands no chance.

So they sit, patiently, atop the mountains, beyond the US military's reach, until they decide to attack at a time and place of their own choosing.
 
And sometimes that would be after the tired soldiers returned to base, just as their heads first touched the pillow to recover from the previous days events. 
 
Just as the Army shows off its manoeuvrability - to go anyplace, anytime - so too the Taliban. 
 
They thus interrupted the morning calm with rocket attacks, sending all the soldiers scrambling into bunkers. The whistling sound of the 107mm rockets overhead are a cause for concern. 
 
The rockets pass close to the base, and if one of them hits the barracks where the troops sleep, there could be many casualties.
 
By the time the troops get permission to fire back, as Tom and I captured in this first Al Jazeera report, the Taliban has long since moved on.
 
The troops tell us the Taliban usually hook the rockets up to egg timers set to fire some one to two hours after they have already fled. The Taliban, we were told, also fire the rockets from nearby villages, so if the US strikes back in blind retaliation, civilians are sure to get killed, especially if airstrikes or artillery is used.

These are but a few factors working against the Army and its mission to defeat the Taliban.
 
Battle-hardened troops

US troops inspect a house destroyed in a family feud in Kunar Province

But the soldiers at COP Monti are in no mood to give up. They have become hardened after multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those who can't wait to get out of the Army will tell you in the same breath that they don't know what they're returning to.

Many have long since divorced or are about to, and even if America is not winning here, for some, fighting the Taliban is all they know. 
 
The motto of the regiment, "Against All Odds", is scrawled proudly on the entrance to the base. Nothing could more aptly sum up their situation.  
 
Charlie Company is tasked with mission impossible: with just over 100 men they have to deny the Taliban room to manoeuvre in more than 240km of impenetrable mountain terrain along the Afghan border with Pakistan. 
 
"Against All Odds" might sound like a war cry sounded by the victor, and at the bars back at Fort Drum, New York, where this unit hails from, it probably does.  
 
But here in Afghanistan, it might as well be from the sombre Phil Collins song, because the troops here are in an unwinnable position. 

The US government all but walked away from Afghanistan, diverting its resources and attention to Iraq. The American public has since grown weary of war, even though these soldiers are increasingly being asked to do more, with far less than is necessary to succeed.  
 
This was the essence I came to capture during my time embedded with US troops. It is a moment in the history of how Charlie Company 1-32 is doing their part to fight the Afghan war. 

Source:
Al Jazeera
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